The Evolution of Burlesque: Harlequin Aces Presents an Evening with Van Ella
“Let me make you feel special when it sucks to be you.”
A cheap one-way plane ticket to Las Vegas: $100. The average Vegas burlesque show: $80. An evening in Pueblo with a quality Harlequin Aces burlesque production at Smitty’s Greenlight Tavern? $15.
Not quite priceless, but it was an inexpensive Friday night at the theater as talented acts like the idiosyncratic Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams, sweet rocking Cherry Glitterbomb, comedian Charley McMullen, traditional Bunny Galore, and classy Lucy Britches delivered tremendous performances. At the heart of it all, Lola van Ella, the glittery, bawdy queen of the evening, put on the Ritz by MCing the event, sparking hilarity, and lighting a few in-pants fires with her comedy, dance numbers, and songs. “I love songs about banging, especially ones written by gay men in the ’40s,” she announced before her Cole Porter performance.
As van Ella demonstrated throughout the revue, Burlesque is meant to ridicule and delight. It is a rhinestone-covered Jonathan Swift novel with tassels for bookmarks, pasties as chapter breaks, and irreverent words and stories caretted in. The costumes and music generally hail back to the ’20s, ’40s, and ’50s and often have a showgirl quality, but An Evening With Van Ella brought in a whole new brand of beautiful mockery to the stage (including a new accoutrement showcased by Cherry Glitterbomb: “assles”–or butt pasties).
After about half an hour of traditional burlesque performances (during which Cherry Glitterbomb, “the happiest face in burlesque,” danced a luscious ode to a dildo), Red Bone, “the Burlesque Hurricane,” stole the show by changing up the evening’s expectations and the conventional burlesque experience, combining classic tease with bgirling, twerking, and the sexiest stink-eye I’ve ever seen in her burlesque rendition of “Boom I Got Your Boyfriend,” by MC Luscious. Her performance served as the paradoxical non-sequitur segue into the rest of the evening.
In fact, the Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams, Foxy “The Boss of Burlesque” Tann, Red Bone, and Jeez Loueez (“the honey badger of burlesque because she does what she wants and doesn’t give a shit”) showed that burlesque is an ever-evolving art. The troupe closed out the show with a raunchy yet reverent group tease to “Rolling On the River” by Tina Turner.
Additionally, Van Ella’s liberal use of both serious and tongue-in-cheek hashtag announcements (including hashtag hash) reminded the audience that we no longer live in a time where a performance is stand-alone. The whole social network is involved.
Happily, van Ella performed her MC duties like the pro she is and went out of her way to make the Pueblo audience, who she said was “warm, energetic and fun,” feel like we were witnessing something no one else in the world would get to see. She even made a point to remind us that a live performance, with all of the nuance and shenanigans, could not be replicated by a YouTube video.
The particular venue of Smitty’s also opened up a unique chance to peep behind the proverbial red curtain (the real one was appropriately impenetrable). Smitty’s stage is flanked by wooden staircases leading up to the makeshift backstage area, and the performers made liberal use of the banister and all a banister has to offer when working blue. The intimate setting of a small venue also allowed the Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams to enter the audience, where Red Bone twerked on a few grateful patrons.
“Look deep into the sparkle. I’ll blind you into submission.”
Despite the growth of burlesque, audience expectations remain the same. Sometimes it is hard to remember, amidst the mesmerizing glittered costumes, bodies, and faces, that we are expected to hoot and holler and be “frothy,” or that our participation generates half of the show’s success. Occasionally, an MC will remind the audience of this fact, especially when there are so many burlesque “virgins” in the house, but the energy on Friday night was such that the audience needed little prompting, especially when Jeez Loueez would wantonly refuse to remove a glove or her corset until the audience became honest participants.
“A celebration of art and subversion.”
The burlesque experience is often misunderstood by those not brave or open enough to ride the lightning. The heart works on electricity, and some hearts pump freely, but many who are unfamiliar with the Colorado Arts scene (“There’s a Colorado Arts scene?!” is a devastatingly common question posed outside of the community) need a pacemaker or defibrillator to generate the love, like my guest to the show Friday night, who was surprised and ecstatic throughout. Others, like those I met in the bar before the show began, are DNR. “$15 for a ticket? I could get [insert obscenity here] for that!” or “I’ve got a better body than those bitches in there. I’m out!” Art is meant to be liberation from and an understanding of the real world, as is satire. $15 is a small price to pay for a jump start.
“Hoping that we love you as much as you love us!”
Many of the women in An Evening with Van Ella hailed from the “Show Me State,” Missouri, where St. Louis is going to seem charmless, and much less sparkly, while these lovely ladies are touring. According to van Ella, “Burlesque is for everyone,” and she and her fellow burlesquers plan to cut a swathe through the West and Southwest in order to prove that point.
*All quotes unless otherwise noted are from Lola van Ella.